Gender Champion: William “Bill” Johnson, CEO, Citi Retail Services

Bill JohnsonLeaders must always be conscious of the shadow they cast for their teams, says Bill Johnson, CEO of Citi Retail Services. “You can ‘talk the talk, but people watch you and your behavior, and what you do day in and day out is far more important than what you say. You should never ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself, and you certainly should not behave in ways you wouldn’t want your team to emulate. The impression you leave behind is your shadow.”

For Johnson, that shadow extends to a deep passion for diversity. He credits this focus to two strong female role models that he had in his mother and grandmother, who both overcame adversity in their lives to become successful beyond what their education and opportunities would have normally allowed. He was always very aware of the decisions they made and the activities they pursued to advance themselves, and how those decisions helped them overcome some of the bias they faced in life. “Seeing what those two strong women accomplished helped give me better perspective on how to guide talent, irrespective of gender, to achieve their potential,” he says.

Carving Out His Path

Bill Johnson joined Citi in 1999 and has held a number of roles in the North America cards business over the years. Currently he serves as CEO of Citi Retail Services, a leading provider of private label credit cards to a virtual “who’s who” of retailers: major chains like The Home Depot, Best Buy, Macy’s and Sears; prominent specialty retailers like Staples, Brooks Brothers and The Children’s Place; large gas companies like Shell and ExxonMobil; and leaders in the automotive space, including Goodyear, Ford, Lincoln and Volkswagen U.S. In addition to private label and co-brand cards, Citi Retail Services specializes in research, data and analytics to help retailers grow sales through enhanced customer marketing, loyalty and compelling value propositions.

Prior to joining Citi, he spent 10 years at GE Capital, where he learned the retail card industry along with skills that have served him well in business development, relationship management and operational discipline.

A Diverse Team Starts at the Top

Johnson says his goal is to make sure thatevery person on the team has the right opportunities to succeed and that those who are smart, hardworking and committed to the business get exposure to the company’s leaders and retail partners. “I see this as doing the right thing for our business and our people. I look at our team and see diversity, which I’m proud of, but I’m more proud of the performance of the team,” he said.

To continue to build the team’s diversity, it’s important to him to ensure that a diverse slate of candidates is available. He believes it’s important that those in the organization who are doing the hiring expand where they look and source a diverse slate to encourage a range of perspectives and experiences that provide fresh ideas and expertise.
Twice a year, the business conducts rigorous talent reviews, and Johnson requires the entire leadership team to participate so that each member is familiar with the broader talent base as well as emerging talent deeper in the organization.

And that commitment to diversity manifests itself in his core leadership team:four of his six direct reports are women as well as two of his matrix reports. He has either hired or promoted each of these women, who lead major roles in partner management, marketing, risk, strategic initiatives, human resources and compliance.The next level of management is approximately one-third women, and they are always working to continue to grow that number.

Presenting Choices to Promote Sound Decisions

Over the last 30 years Johnson has mentored and sponsored a number of women, sharing his perspective on how to be successful in an environment that isn’t typically gender-diverse.

He finds it most valuable to help emerging talent – women in particular – think about the future and understand how the choices they make might be different from the choices others make. “It is important for anyone to understand that their career choices may be impacted by their personal choices. People – women and men – have to do what is right for them, personally and for their family. Making a choice isn’t a bad thing; it’s just part of life.”

He believes that his role as a sponsor isn’t about helping someone make those choices, but rather to help the individual give full consideration to all the aspects that go into making the decision and considering all the possible outcomes. By ensuring they consider all the consequences of their decisions, they not only can make the best choice for themselves, but they are also owning the choice themselves. “If you make a decision for someone, it gives them the liberty of not taking ownership for the outcome which is where regret and blame originate.”

Balancing the Team

Johnson recounts a story of a young woman who worked for him as a sales representative many years ago, when the industry was dominated by male clients. One particular client team was very traditional and was uncomfortable having a woman in the room. While it would have been easier to remove her from the account, Johnson believed she was a fantastic salesperson with potential to advance and was aware of the impact a reassignment could have on her career. Instead, they worked together to improve her executive presence. In future meetings, she was better able to contribute and ended up being very successful.

Johnson has carried that ethos during his work in Retail Services, where they believe in making the best decisions in the interest of the business while balancing the needs of the teams and their partners. They look for people who are curious and agile and who act with integrity but also realize that ensuring someone is a cultural fit is just as important as having the right skill set. “Given two candidates with similar skills, we gravitate every time toward the candidate who embodies our principles and values,” he said. “Over time, we’re more concerned with people who will do the right thing personally and make sure that others do the right thing. You have to hire the right people for the right reasons.

Johnson has a sign in his office with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that reads, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”
He believes that can be extended to apply to people as well – that it’s easier to succeed with a positive attitude, and that it’s critical to always try to find the best in people by assuming their thoughts and actions are intended positively. “With that comes the understanding that men and women may be different, yet both are equal.”

By Cathie Ericson